Solving Murders: Why Time Matters

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Photo of crime scene mural by Tom Hilton via Flickr

The longer a murder case drags on without an arrest, the less likely the killer will be brought to justice. A Washington Post examination found.

The newspaper examined 8,000 homicide arrests in 25 major U.S. cities since 2007, and found that in half of the cases, an arrest was made in 10 days or fewer. The analysis underscores what police experts have said about the passage of time working against detectives.

It also dispels the notion of a “48-hour rule” that most cases, if solved, are wrapped up in two days.

Only 30 percent of cases led to an arrest within that time frame. Two-thirds of arrests were made within one month. For cases that remained unsolved after one year, five percent ultimately led to an arrest. Evidence collection and lab tests often delay an arrest beyond few days.

Police departments are facing a growing backlog of unsolved murders. Homicide arrest rates have fallen over the past decade in dozens of cities. The Murder Accountability Project found more unsolved killings per capita in 2016 in the U.S. than at any time since the 1960s. It is estimated that across the nation there have been more than 250,000 unsolved homicides during that time.

See also: “Fixing America’s Cold Case Crisis.”

Unsolved homicides in many departments eventually are transferred from the detectives who initially investigated to cold-case units. Many police departments have reduced resources devoted to solving older cold cases, said criminologist Michael Arntfield, a co-director of the Murder Accountability Project. “What used to be a cold-case unit are more likely just a cold-case detective,” said Arntfield, who founded the Cold Case Society, which helps police review unsolved killings.

The cold-case investigators who remain are forced to focus on a dozen or so cases from among hundreds. Some departments have hired retired detectives to work part time and enlisted volunteers to look for clues that detectives might have missed the first time.

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